Writing isn’t JUST for writers. How writing improves health, reduces stress, and makes things much better for everyone

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A regular writing habit is beneficial. And not only for writers...

In fact, writing down your deepest thoughts and feelings offers significant health improvements, both mental and physical.

In the late 1980s, the American social psychologist James W. Pennebaker carried out several studies that explored writing as a form of expressive therapy. He confirmed that expressive writing helps people deal with emotional upheavals, and that this in turn improves their health and wellbeing.

After experiencing a traumatic event like the death of a family member, divorce, serious illness, natural disaster, or war, people are likely to become depressed. They can get sick, gain or lose weight, and even succumb to heart disease or cancer. Those who keep their trauma a secret feel much worse off compared to those who talk about their experiences. But, nevertheless, many people who experience trauma don’t talk about it. There are many reasons why, but one of the most common reasons is that they fear the reaction of others.

Writing about a painful event is almost like talking about it, except that in this case you are both talker and listener.

Pennebaker’s studies suggest that expressive writing makes a positive impact on our physical and mental health. Let’s discuss this in more detail.

Expressive writing improves physical health

Ongoing chronic stress weakens our immune system and makes us susceptible to disease. To understand how stress affects our health, let's explore the chemical reactions that happen in our body when we experience stress.

Imagine a scenario... You've started running after a long break. Running inflicts a degree of stress on your body. Soon after you hit the track, your brain sends a signal to the endocrine system which releases cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones provide your body with the energy needed for your run. Your heart rate and breathing increase and your blood vessels dilate to let blood flow more quickly to your muscles.

Image source: https://www.girlsgonestrong.com/blog/hormones/insulin-cortisol/

Cortisol — known as the anti-stress hormone — helps you combat stress and reduces inflammation in your body. Without cortisol you can die from injury and trauma. This hormone is a great help, but only for short-term stress.

After running and other physical exercise, you can relax and your stress level will return to normal, but - when it comes to emotional stress - people have more trouble recovering. When you suffer from emotional stress your cortisol level increases, and excess cortisol in your blood suppresses your immune system.

Chronic stress is often the result of an emotional situation that you haven’t resolved. People who suffer from chronic stress may experience anxiety, depression, and sleep problems. They have an increased risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, and cancer.

Expressive writing is an effective method to reduce stress. Disclosing your deepest feelings in writing lowers your blood pressure and heart rate. A regular writing practice enhances emotional regulation and strengthens your immune system.

Writing about emotional events makes you feel better

When a traumatic event happens, people start seeking the answer to why it happened. They go over and over it, replaying negative memories in their mind. Overthinking — or ruminating — leads to depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and other mental health problems.

Expressive writing helps you break free of the endless distressing ruminative cycles. It decreases depressive symptoms, worries, and anxiety. When you open up privately, you ease the feelings of emotional trauma.

Writing about emotional upheavals impacts your mood positively. Although you can feel upset and even weepy after having written your deepest feelings, it’s only short-term. Feeling sad is okay. You can reflect on these feelings for a moment. A couple of hours later, you will notice how the act of expressing your emotions in written form has made you feel better.

Writing about traumatic experiences boosts performance

Expressive writing doesn’t only improve physical and mental health. It also improves your performance.

Rumination and brooding take over your thoughts when you’re trying to concentrate on work or studies. When you feel worried you have less working memory or the ability to focus on complex tasks.

Emotional writing boosts your working memory by freeing up your resources. It lets you reframe your thinking and break free of the thinking traps. When you put traumatic experiences into words you become less concerned with the emotional events of the past. You can focus on the present.

Expressing feelings in writing improves your social life

Another benefit of expressive writing is an improved social life.

One of Pennebaker’s studies showed that people who wrote about traumatic experiences became more sociable afterwards; they talked more with other people, laughed more often, and used more words associated with positive emotions.

In another study, he even found that expressive writing helps people pass job interviews. He asked one group of people who had been laid off to write about their feelings about losing their jobs. The other group of laid-off employees were asked to write about how they used their time. Both groups went on the same number of interviews. As a result, 52% of employees who wrote about traumatic events were reemployed compared with only 21% of participants who wrote about non-traumatic topics.

Writing about things that bother you makes you a less negative person. It makes you a better listener and talker. Writing helps to reduce anger and depression, resulting in emotionally healthy social relationships.

When expressive writing is most helpful

If you’re going through tough times - moving to a new country, changing a job, or coping after divorce - expressive writing will be particularly useful.

If there was a traumatic event in your life that happened some time ago but you haven’t quite gotten over it yet, you should write about that too.

You can also do expressive writing every day — express how you feel about anything that happens in your life.

Expressive writing is a self-reflective tool. By exploring emotional upheavals in our lives we force ourselves to look inwards and examine who we are. This examination can serve as a life course correction.

How to write expressively

  • Openly acknowledge emotions both negative and positive. Naming your emotions is an important first step in dealing with them effectively.
Image source: https://hbr.org/2016/11/3-ways-to-better-understand-your-emotions

Construct a meaningful story of what happened and how it is affecting you. Your narrative should have a beginning, middle, and an end.

  • Write in the third person, trying to switch the perspective and look at what happened through others' eyes.
  • Express yourself openly and honestly. Don’t worry about spelling, grammar or sentence structure. Find your own voice.

Use Morning Pages for expressive writing

You've probably heard about a writing practice called Morning Pages. The technique was discussed in detail in the book "The Artist's Way".

Julia Cameron — the author of this book — suggests that three pages of longhand, stream of consciousness writing clears your mind and makes you more creative.

But writing longhand isn't the only way of writing. In fact, studies that examined ways of writing haven’t found any significant differences between typing and writing longhand.

All this in mind, we've developed Morning Pages app for iPhone and iPad. This is a journaling application that lets you record your thoughts and feelings using your smartphone, and is intended to be used as a tool for expressive writing.

We'd love it if you could check it out and let us know your thoughts.

Happy writing!

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